Consoles are connected, weâ??re all on Facebook, and Will Wrightâ??s Spore has a development team of thousands. Other developers should wake up and take the hint.

Why isn’t everyone copying Will Wright?

Will Wright expected Spore creature creators to produce 200,000 beasties in a couple of months. In reality users took 22 hours to create 100,000. Within a week the menagerie numbered one million. When Wright spoke to E3 last month – 18 days after the launch of his Spore content creation tool – the Sporepedia boasted 1,756,869 species, or more species than on Earth. All this for a game that isn’t even out yet.

If user-generated content (UGC) mania can surprise Will Wright, what chance for the rest of us? Not only is the Maxis founder a genius, he also saw with The Sims how engaging and empowering a community took off. Paradigm shifts are scary. Perhaps it’s safer to work on a first-person shooter with a deathmatch mode, and wait for someone else to invent the future?

The positive news is that awareness of social networking and UGC’s potential in games has blossomed.

Speaking to developers in late 2006 about making Web 2.0-inspired games a key theme at Develop in Brighton in 2007, we were met with polite bemusement. The next 12 months saw Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet wow E3, GDC go big on Web 2.0, Microsoft’s Chris Satchell keynote the Brighton conference on the same subject, and Facebook sign-up most of the UK industry for a summer of clicking through pictures of their colleagues drinking with old university pals.

Now everyone gets it, to the extent that Web 2.0 is a hackneyed, faintly embarrassing phrase, and Facebook no more exciting than Hotmail. Yet we’re still not seeing the push from the industry I’d expect, given the proven power of network effects and UGC to engage gamers, as is being amply demonstrated by Spore.

The console makers’ E3 keynotes name-checked the user-driven phenomenon, but were light on announcements. On social networking, developments amounted to a Swap Shop of each other’s best platform community features (for instance: Microsoft’s 360 Avatars), and hearing yet again how cool PlayStation Home will be… eventually. Where were the big first-party projects putting networked social gaming and UGC to the fore?

Sony proffered LittleBigPlanet, again, and Nintendo hinted that Animal Crossing: City Folk might enable more UGC sharing. Microsoft concentrated on its Xbox Live overhaul, and its new Community channel – interesting, but not about games. More pertinent is the Xbox Live Community Games service, which brings Kongregate-style user moderation to XNA output. It was revealed back at GDC and was barely mentioned at E3.

Electronic Arts’ press conference was more on-target. It boasted Shawn Fanning, the infamous disruptor behind Napster, discussing Rupture, his game community service that EA acquired for $30million. EA already has a sort of proprietary gamertag system in production called Nucleus. But Rupture is an open system. Any developer or publisher can use it to enable their gamers to follow their friends across Rupture-enabled titles.

While EA doesn’t have a great track record of collaborating with external companies (Renderware, remeber?), Rupture makes great sense. Why wouldn’t I want my PlayStation 3-owning friends to see my achievements on Xbox 360? Why should a FIFA-owning pal be left out just because he bought a different console?

A cross-platform social networking service puts the emphasis where it belongs – on gamers, and games. You can appreciate how concerned EA must be about hardware makers getting too chummy with ‘its’ gamers. Other publishers should be equally nervous, which may bode well for Rupture’s future.

As for bona fide social networking or UGC-inspired games, well, certain studios are making progress. Criterion’s Burnout Paradise was a smart Web 2.0-ish evolution of the racing genre. Relentless incorporated user-generated quizzes into the new online PS3 version of Buzz! (harder than you might think). And Sports Interactive’s Football Manager Live should be worth waiting for.

Some start-ups are focusing on creating social games for MySpace and Facebook. Founded by mobile games veterans, Playfish is ‘working on combining the best elements of casual games, social networks, MMOGs and virtual worlds to create entirely new, more social ways of enjoying great games together’. It’s released three titles, all of which are in the Facebook Apps top ten.

Games had a headstart long ago with MMOGs, of course; the likes of Second Life and Eve Online are way ahead in exploring these opportunities. Still, I think we’ve only just begun. We won’t be shocked in a few years by thousands of enthusiasts creating content for games like Spore, but rather that in 2008 Will Wright was so lonely in championing them.

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